Nine mid-major stars to watch
Go ahead, clear out some space on the refrigerator door. It's probably just junk up there anyway -- outdated pizza coupons, those alphabet magnets that were only fun for about five minutes and stick drawings by your kids. (Why encourage them? You don't want them to grow up to be starving artists.) For the next four months, you're going to need that valuable white or silver real estate for this list of nine all-star ballers from the one-bid neighborhood of Mid-Majorville.
So click on the print-friendly icon at the bottom of the page, zap out a copy, and put it up. These here are the guys who might single-handedly tip small-conference races, who'll likely be the out-of-nowhere first-round NCAA Tournament heroes who will break big-conference hearts and bust office pool brackets. If you idly read this every time you're drinking orange juice straight from the carton in your bathrobe, you'll be sure to have absorbed these names by March.
Eddie Ard, Lipscomb
As a sophomore, the sinewy 6-foot-5 wing scored from everywhere on the floor, all the time -- 49.7 percent while the clock was ticking, and 81 percent from the free-throw line. All those swoops and swishes left a lasting impression on the Atlantic Sun beat writers and coaches, who recently voted Ard the league's preseason player of the year.
Ard and his purple-clad teammates are still smarting over a last-minute loss to fellow Nashvillians Belmont in the A-Sun title game, though a regular-season title gained them a fleeting glimpse of the national postseason (a blowout NIT loss at UTEP). In what is only the Bisons' third year of postseason eligibility, a full conference title and a strong NCAA Tournament showing could end up making Ard a folk hero in country music's capital.
Rodney Stuckey, Eastern Washington
After an appearance on this year's preseason Wooden Award All-America list, Sky watchers already are comparing Stuckey to conference legend Harold "The Show" Arceneaux. If he can lead the Eagles to an NCAA win as shocking as Weber State's 1999 14-over-3 job against North Carolina, will they call him "The Encore"?
Blake Schilb, Loyola (Ill.)
Though Loyola won 19 games last season, the pride of Rantoul, Ill., generally has labored in Horizon League obscurity while Wisconsin-Milwaukee carried the conference's banner. But the two-time NCAA second-round Panthers are starting from scratch after graduating their starting five. Just in time, perhaps, for a 6-7 senior Rambler who, like the old muscle cars of the same name, is quite light on the tires for his size.
An oversized point guard is generally just bad physics -- increases in hand-to-floor distance generally result in more easy steals -- but Schilb's sure hands and 3.9 assists per game last season mean that he's no liability bringing the ball up. His calling card, though, is dead-on accuracy; his 19.1 ppg in 2005-06 came on 46.6 percent shooting (37.8 percent from 3), and an 83 percent mark from the line. With a more wide-open Horizon, this preseason Wooden Award candidate could end up putting some truly Magic-al numbers.
George Hill, IUPUI
The recent history of the Mid-Continent Conference is rife with shoulder chips resulting from self-inflicted psychic injuries. Two seasons ago, Oral Roberts lost the title game on a last-second shot to Oakland, and used that scar as motivation to propel it to a league championship and a hang-around loss to Memphis in the first round of the NCAAs last season. The victims of that run were the IUPUI Jaguars, who won 21 games but were nipped on the last day of the regular season for the conference's No. 1 seed by surging ORU.
Will this be the year that "The Acronym That Saved Indianapolis" exacts revenge? If it is, it'll likely be due to the efforts of a junior guard who has some lingering resentment of his own. Hill ended the season with 18.9 ppg on 51.8 percent shooting, and nabbed 6.0 boards a game despite his 6-2 stature, but was overshadowed by Oral Roberts' Caleb Green for Player of the Year consideration.
Hill got better and better as his sophomore season went on, culminating in a 10-for-10 performance against UMKC in the midst of the Jaguars' nine-game conference winning streak. After a hard summer in the weight room and glowing reviews from coach Ron Hunter, Hill is a player to watch.
He's now over a year past complicated cartilage-removal knee surgery and is coming off a comeback season that yielded 13.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and Big South tournament MVP honors. Martin's senior season, given Winthrop's kingly status in the conference, will likely result in a return trip to the NCAAs, as well as an opportunity to turn in a spotlighted performance that hoops fans will remember for all the right reasons.
Jamar Wilson, Albany Plenty of teams go to the NCAA's as teen seeds, lose close "woulda-shoulda" games and are quickly forgotten in the rush to the Final Four, but it could be argued that Albany's loss to Connecticut was the most valuable tournament loss in recent memory.
Just three seasons removed from Division II, the Great Danes led for much of the game, were up by double digits midway through the second half, and were only finally caught by a team of future NBA stars with six minutes to go. Regardless, the debutant Scoobies had left a lasting impression, and people who were there were still talking about Albany's performance in hushed tones over the summer. It was almost as if they had indeed been the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1.
Most of that cast is back for another run at a real actual tournament win, as is the team's offensive catalyst, the 6-1 Bronx native who averaged 17.4 points and 4.9 rebounds a season ago. The reigning America East Player of the Year put in a 19-point performance in that fateful UConn game (including seven in the space of 1:07 midway through the second half to help Albany build a 12-point lead), and he enters 2006-07 as the Danes' unquestioned heart and soul. Could this be the player, and team, that finally takes out a top seed in the first round?
Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky
Lee's statistical value to the Hilltoppers is easily quantified: The 6-5 swingman scored 17.4 points per game for the Sun Belt regular-season champions last season (including six games with 100 percent free-throw shooting), and after two years he sits just 17 points away from 1,000 for his career. His heart and will to win are also easily measured: Despite a badly broken hand, he played in the SBC title game and scored 10 points. It wasn't enough, however, and South Alabama represented the league at the dance.
WKU's twin team goals are to get back to the NCAA Tournament after a four-year absence and to win its first game since 1995. But for Lee's junior season, coach Darrin Horn has assigned him with the task of bringing his defense up to the level of his offense. As the league's preseason POY and another of the six mid-major ballers on the 50-man preseason Wooden Award list, it's widely accepted that his offense is right where it needs to be, and he's well on his way to becoming one of the best all-around players outside the BCS conferences.
In both college basketball and politics, it doesn't pay to be an independent. Despite consecutive 20-win seasons, the Islanders had as much chance of making the NCAA Tournament as state-mate Ross Perot did of winning the presidency, so their move to the Southland Conference means that they'll have a much better shot at entering the corridors of power.
Daniels (team-leading 15.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg and 1.53 bpg in 2005-06) is a 7-foot, 265-pound senior specimen who has a pillow-soft touch around the basket. TAMU-CC led the nation in field-goal percentage (50.1 percent), thanks in large part to Daniels' 60.1 percent mark. He notched six double-doubles, including a 20-and-13 performance in a three-point loss to eventual 21-win C-USA club Houston, and hit 80 percent of his freebies, a rare high figure for a big-handed center.
With graduation-depleted champions Northwestern State leaving a vacuum at the top of the Southland, Daniels -- and the only Division I school with both an ampersand and a hyphen -- could use their new league's automatic bid to crash the NCAA party in a big way.
A.J. Jackson, Robert Morris RMU doesn't have much of a hoops legacy -- it won a preliminary-round NCAA game back in 1983, and former NBA player Earl "The Twirl" Cureton played there for a while before then-Detroit Mercy coach Dick Vitale snuck him out of Moon Township, Pa. But now, with the best returning talent in the Northeast Conference and a brand-new logo (that looks suspiciously like the Samuel Adams beer guy), the Colonials are ready to lay claim to the league.
The 6-6 junior notched 13 double-doubles as a sophomore on the way to 17.0 ppg, and his 9.3 rebound average was the school's best mark since Cureton's 10.5 in 1976-77. If Jackson can lead RMU to an NEC title, will Dickie V nab him for his All-Mid-Major Team?
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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